The Roots of Reform

by Ramesh Ponnuru
Adapted from the February 24, 2014, issue of National Review

All of a sudden, Republicans are beginning to construct a new national agenda.

Every week, it seems, some Republican is announcing a new policy initiative — on health care, on taxes, on poverty. None of these announcements dominates the next day’s news stories. Together, though, they suggest that the party is in the process of a reorientation that will ultimately leave it stronger: better able to win elections, and better able to govern conservatively.

During President Obama’s first term, Republican politicians were not much interested in conservative policy initiatives, since after all they had no chance of getting them enacted. They were very interested in defeating Obama’s agenda, but did not tend to see the elaboration of an alternative one as crucial to that project. The party as a whole was consumed by a bitter debate over the legacy of George W. Bush. In reaction to that legacy and to Obama’s agenda, conservatives came in practice to regard the fight against federal overspending, Obamacare, and big government as nearly the entirety of the conservative program.

At the same time, Republicans were making a turn toward the rhetoric of commercial individualism in response to the economic collectivism they saw in Obama. Especially after Obama denigrated the social contributions of business owners in a 2012 campaign stop, Republicans extolled the virtues of entrepreneurs, suggesting that their liberation from taxes and regulations was the country’s foremost need. To the extent the 2012 Republican convention had a theme, that was it.

The esteem for businessmen was sometimes accompanied by an indifference to, disdain for, or despair about people in the bottom half of the income distribution. Many conservatives came to think that their political fortunes had fallen because these people had become accustomed to dependence on the federal government. Mitt Romney channeled these sentiments when he said that he had no shot at the votes of the 47 percent of the electorate who did not pay federal income taxes, because they no longer wished to take responsibility for themselves.

Throughout these years a number of conservative writers, many of them associated with this magazine, called for a different way of thinking about politics. The actual root of Republicans’ electoral weakness, they argued, was the public’s perception that they were not offering answers to the challenges facing most Americans today — a perception that was too often justified. The existing Republican agenda on economic issues was outdated, a set of solutions to the problems that the United States faced in the late 1970s.

When the Republican program of the last few decades was created, the threats to the American way of life came from high income-tax rates, runaway inflation, and street crime. Those threats have now receded, in part because of the success of that program, and been succeeded by new ones. The country is stratified by education: Opportunities for people without college degrees have been drying up, but the cost of those degrees keeps rising, and the number of people with them is no longer rapidly increasing. Take-home pay has been stagnant. Health insurance has been getting less affordable. Marriage is in decline. Entitlement programs designed decades ago now look impossible to afford in their current form.

The writers who made these points do not believe that there are pat governmental “solutions” to these problems. They do think there is a role for better public policy in addressing most of them. Sometimes that will mean simply reducing misguided government interventions that make things worse. Sometimes it will mean redesigning programs so that they advance rather than thwart Americans’ goals. Sometimes it will mean a mixture of both.

It followed from this way of looking at things that what Republicans most needed was not, as others were urging after electoral defeats, to move left on social issues or right on the size of government or both at once. They needed, rather, to make a fresh assessment of the national condition and find remedies, rooted in conservative insights, for what ailed it.

Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam began this assessment with an article in The Weekly Standard that grew into a 2008 book, Grand New Party. They argued that with a creative conservative agenda Republicans could offer more to working-class voters than could Democrats and thereby cement a national majority. In 2009, Yuval Levin started National Affairs, where like-minded conservatives have shown how the Right’s agenda on a broad range of domestic issues could be updated. Several other writers — James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute (where I am a visiting fellow) has joined Douthat, Salam, and Levin as one of the most active — have taken up these themes.

This group soon came to be called “reform conservatives.” They adopted the label with some misgivings. It tended to paper over their disagreements. It made them seem like a faction seeking to dominate the Republican party and thus in need of a comprehensive agenda running the gamut from foreign to monetary policy. Worst, it made them appear more interested in reforming conservatism than in applying conservative reforms to the government. Still, the label stuck; and while the disagreements were real, so were the areas of consensus.

The reformers did not want to abandon the fight against overspending or big government, but did not believe it could be won without broadening the conservative agenda. To be complete, for example, the case against Obamacare needed to include an explanation of how we could broaden access to insurance without coercion, taxes, and federal micromanagement. Cutting federal spending, while very important, would not by itself help anyone trying to stretch her paycheck to take care of her family — and if Republicans had nothing to say about that vital question, she would listen to Democrats who did, even if what they said was not very sensible.

These conservatives tended as well to fault the Republican overemphasis on business. Entrepreneurial drive, and a public-policy climate conducive to it, is of course extremely important to the country’s success. But business ownership is not the whole story, and it is not a part of the story with which most people identify. Most people are not “job creators” or innovators, and have no particular desire to be. They are not looking to be rescued either by the government or by businessmen. They are, rather, people with plans and aspirations of their own, for themselves and for their families, most of which do not involve getting rich. Reform conservatism sought to take those plans seriously and determine whether obstacles put in their way by public policy could be removed.

During the first Obama term, not many Republican politicians were listening to these ideas. The reform conservatives’ biggest cause for cheer was Representative Paul Ryan’s success in getting congressional Republicans to support a reform to harness the power of competition to restrain the growth of Medicare costs. That proposal represented an updating of the conservative agenda to account for the massive increase in the cost of entitlements since the early 1980s.

It was an important step forward for Republicans. They could have continued to deploy their anti-spending fervor against the discretionary side of the budget rather than taking on the larger, faster-growing, and politically trickier entitlements. They could, that is, have adopted a posture rather than a policy. Medicare reform was a sign the party was interested in governing again. Control of entitlements is after all a fiscal precondition for reform conservatism, or any other serious agenda.

Yet no larger agenda followed the Medicare initiative. Republicans’ advocacy of Medicare reform did not sink them, as Democrats had hoped, but neither did it supply an answer to voters’ concerns about the status of the American dream. And even as Ryan’s boldness got him a spot on the Republican ticket, it seems to have exhausted the appetite for innovation on the part of his colleagues. The Republicans were still narrowly focused on cutting spending.

A few Republicans started to adopt reformist themes following the 2012 election. Just a few weeks after it, Ryan criticized Republicans (though not his running mate) for having too little to say to Americans who do not run a business. Governor Bobby Jindal of Louisiana took aim at the Republicans’ tendency to identify, and be identified, exclusively with the rich. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida touted a proposal to address Americans’ anxieties about the rising cost and uncertain payoff of college.

A few weeks after that, Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, tried to devise a conservative agenda around the theme of “Making Life Work” for most Americans. Senator Mike Lee of Utah made the argument that limited-government conservatism should be seen as a communitarian credo, not just one for radical individualists.

Not many policy specifics were attached to these comments. Liberal commentators who considered the reformers almost uniformly made two critiques. The Republican party was too stupid, crazy, or corrupt to be interested in policies that addressed the concerns of people who are not rich; at most it would be interested only in repackaging. And conservatism itself had and could have no answers for Americans’ problems, which require a larger federal government steered by experts.

The latter criticism can survive any number of new conservative policy proposals: Liberals, with presuppositions different from those of conservatives, will generally consider their proposed policies inadequate. But beginning in the fall of 2013 Republican politicians began to put policy flesh on the bones of reform conservatism. Perhaps it’s because of the failure of the government shutdown; perhaps because of the passage of time since the 2012 election; perhaps because declining confidence in Obama and liberalism has created an opening that Republicans sense; perhaps it’s just a matter of chance. For whatever reason, there is suddenly an air of policy ferment surrounding the Republicans.

The first to move was Senator Lee. In September, he proposed a tax reform that broke with the Republican priorities of the previous decade. It had as its centerpiece an expansion of the child tax credit rather than a reduction in the top income-tax rate, and thus offered more tangible benefits for middle-class families than for high earners. The idea had long been talked up in the pages of NR, the Standard, and National Affairs. Lee followed up this plan with similarly innovative proposals on transportation and higher education. None of these ideas got much attention, but neither did any of them compromise Lee’s reputation as an enemy of centralized, overweening government. Lee was showing that conservatism could be solutions-oriented without being watered down — indeed, that it could become more robust as it took on the task of articulating specific alternatives to liberalism.

The Republican Study Committee, a group of 174 conservatives in the House, endorsed an alternative to Obamacare. Unlike previous health-care bills with wide support among congressional Republicans, it took on the distortions of the tax code that have kept millions of Americans locked out of health insurance.

In January 2014, Senator Rubio took up a set of modest but promising reforms to anti-poverty proposals that had also been outlined in NR. Senator John Thune of South Dakota ran with some ideas for fighting the long-term-unemployment crisis that Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute had popularized in those conservative publications: for example, a reform of the unemployment-benefit system designed to counteract the way it can sometimes discourage people from finding work.

Also in January, three Republican senators — Tom Coburn (Okla.), Orrin Hatch (Utah), and Richard Burr (N.C.) — proposed the strongest alternative to Obamacare to emerge from Congress so far. Like the RSC bill, the senators’ plan reworks the existing tax break for health insurance. Their version of reform would allow roughly as many people to get health insurance as Obamacare does, and maybe more people than Obamacare does. It does so, however, without Obamacare’s new taxes, reductions in freedom, threat of governmental rationing, and transformation of health insurers into public utilities. The plan is not perfect, but it is much better than Obamacare, and it does not put advocates of repeal in the position of having to strip health insurance from large numbers of people with nothing to replace it.

The new interest in conservative reforms to government suggests how the division among Republicans between tea partiers and the establishment might be transcended. There is no figure in Congress more associated with tea-party insurgency than Mike Lee, and no Republican has served longer in the Senate than his fellow Utahn Orrin Hatch. Yet both have contributed to the new spirit of reform among Republicans.

The public has long been sympathetic to conservative principles of small government and free markets. In recent years, though, Republicans have not done much to show the relevance of those principles to people’s lives. The promise of reform conservatism is that it will demonstrate that the principles are not just appealing in some abstract sense but can be made to work in practice.

Reform conservatism is making substantial political progress. But that progress is not yet complete. For it to go further, Republican presidential candidates will have to take it up. If enough congressional Republicans lead the way, they will follow.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review.